Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the solemnity of the Assumption, one of the most beautiful and loves feasts of the liturgical year. It is especially heartfelt in Italy as you will see from the following not-too-solemn look at ferragosto, the Assunta, the Assumption.
THE LAZY, HAZY DAYS OF FERRAGOSTO IN ROME
It is August, usually a hot month in the northern hemisphere, and it even seems like the tropics in so many parts of the world. It’s been a really brutal summer in Europe for heat waves, droughts, rivers drying up, attempts by governments to ration water and so on.
Today in Italy we celebrate the biggest holiday of the summer season “Ferragosto,” the name Italians give to the August 15 solemnity of the Assumption. Ferragosto refers to the feriae augusti, meaning “holidays of August.”
For many Italians, this is the biggest holiday and holy day of the year.
These appear to have originated in 18 BC when the Roman Emperor Augustus declared that the entire month of August would be dedicated to the feriae, a series of festivals and celebrations, the most important of which fell on the 13th and was dedicated to the goddess Diana.
Though the term ferragosto is pagan in origin, in Italy it refers to the mid-summer holidays but is interchangeable with the feast of the Assunta, the Assumption, strictly a religious celebration.
There has been a constant tradition in the Church that Mary was assumed into heaven and, as early as the fifth century, this feast was celebrated in Syria, spreading to other parts of the world over the centuries. In the 12th Century, this feast was celebrated in the city of Rome, and in France. From the 13th century onwards, this was a certain tenet of faith and in 1950, Pope Pius XII declared this dogma infallibly and ex cathedra.
Whatever day of the week this feast falls on in Italy, most churches will have their Sunday Mass schedule in full swing, and parishes in resort towns, be they seaside or in the mountains, will generally be filled to overflowing with the extra seasonal visitors.
The pace of life is much slower in Rome in July and August, particularly August, and you’ll see a lot of chiuso per ferie (closed for vacation) signs posted on the shutters of stores, pharmacies, florists, some restaurants and coffee bars, newsstands, tobacconists, hardware stores, movie theaters, and small, neighborhood food markets known as alimentari. The phones of friends, including many who work in the Roman Curia, often ring empty.
The peace and quiet of Rome, due to shuttered stores, so many people away on vacation and greatly reduced traffic, is simply marvelous! It seems at times like you could shoot a cannon down the middle of some of the city’s main streets and not hit a thing!
The souvenir stores and mini markets that dot every street in Rome will be open for business as usual, as will a few other stores who have undergone financial difficulties in the last two years. The markets open about 7 in the morning and close about midnight.
Life is extra quiet in the Vatican as well. When the Pope is away on vacation (or, in Francis’ case, on a reduced work schedule or staycation), this mini-state is almost deserted. The Vatican stores, pharmacy and medical center all have reduced hours because many employees are away on prolonged vacations.
Vacations are quite generous in the summer, at Christmas and at Easter for employees of Vatican City State or the Roman Curia. Employees who live outside of Italy receive an added three days of vacation for travel time for the summer vacation and those who live outside of continental Europe receive five additional days. These vacations usually compensate for working six days a week the rest of the year, which makes weekend travel generally impossible.
Except for the Angelus, there are no public and few private audiences when Popes are “on vacation.” Pope Francis, however, does have audiences and receive visitors in August as July is his preferred month for a downsized schedule with no weekly general audiences.
Curial activity slows down in the summer, and stops completely on August 14, 15 and 16, all Vatican holidays when every office, and all stores, the pharmacy and the medical center are closed. Only the press office and Secretariat of State are open for business, but with only a skeleton staff.
However, the last few years have been a vast improvement over the early years I lived in Italy, especially when there were very few supermarkets. Once upon a time, Italians bought most of their food at three places: the local alimentari, the neighborhood butcher and the local fruit and vegetable store. Each one was assigned a letter – either A or B – for summer vacations. When A stores closed, B could not. And vice versa. This was to avoid all stores in one neighborhood closing at the same time, forcing people to go longer distances for food. Now we have supermarkets.
I can also remember when the local newspapers actually published the names of the few doctors, including specialists, who were available in Rome at vacation time, as well as a list of the few pharmacies that would be open in a given period.
A month off was the typical vacation time for Italians.
Years ago, many coffee bars and restaurants closed for close to a month in the summer, especially because so few had air-conditioning. Since the historically hot and brutal summer of 2003 (four non-stop months of record heat, ending in mid-September), more and more stores, bars and restaurants have installed air-conditioning. Over 10,000 people died in France that summer, and approximately 1,000 died in Italy.
By law restaurants and bars must close one day a week and that day is always posted outside the entrance or on the shutter. Some overlook this law, while others ask special permission to remain open seven days. For example, if a restaurant had its weekly closing on a Monday but Monday of a given year was Christmas or Ferragosto, the owner would ask permission from the proper authorities to open that day (or simply open, without the proper permission!).
Until the summer of 2013, Popes generally spent all or much of the summer period at Castelgandolfo. St. John Paul and Benedict XVI often spent some time in July in northern Italy at a vacation home belonging to a diocese or diocesan seminary. Long walks in the woods, picnics, some down time for reading and, in the case of Benedict, quiet time to play the piano, and cooler temps marked those periods.
As I mentioned, Pope Francis prefers to tone things down a bit in July.
You really have to spend an August in Rome (especially just before and after ferragosto) to understand its impact – how life here at that time of year is totally different from anything we’d know or have experienced in the U.S. How a major city almost becomes a ghost city!
Aside from the heat that can take your breath away, I love August in Rome. The streets are almost empty, fewer cars means fewer horns honking and, at times it seems there are even fewer ambulances with sirens blasting away. I love that there are fewer motorbikes! I’ve never had a car here – I walk, take a bus or when needed, hail a taxi, As far as busses go in August, there are a lot more seats available.
Now I turn to an amusing look at Ferragosto, courtesy of Bob Moynihan of Inside the Vatican Magazine. I saw a post a few years ago that I felt depicted summer in Rome, especially the hot and heady ‘dog days’ of summer, with a bull’s eye precision. If you are reading this in Rome, you’ll understand every word. If you are not in Italy, you might want to wait till September! With Bob’s kind permission I offer you this page from his Journal.
In these days in Rome, the heat is infernal.
And the Italians are saying so.
A headline here reads: “Lucifero non ha fretta, l’Italia è un inferno.” (link)
Meaning: “Lucifer is not in a hurry, Italy is an inferno.”
The report goes on: “Lucifero non ha fretta di andare in ferie. Resterà a tenerci compagnia con le due lingue di fuoco almeno fino al fine settimana.”
Meaning: “Lucifer isn’t in a hurry to take a vacation. He will remain to keep us company with the two tongues of flame at least until the end of the week.”
And also this: “A ferragosto sono attese temperature infernali.”
Meaning: “On August 15, infernal temperatures are expected.”
So it seems likely that this will continue a bit longer…
Today at midday in Rome it was 40 degrees Celsius — 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
There was hardly a flicker of a breeze, perhaps 2 miles an hour every so often.
And, though it seems quite dry for Rome, the humidity here is still about 25 percent.
That’s the problem with Rome — not so much the heat, but the humidity.
In fact, one report says “humidity and other factors are making it feel much hotter with the so-called ‘perceived’ temperature in Campania, the region around Naples, estimated at a broiling 55°C (131°F) on Friday.”
That’s what it says: 131 degrees… Of course, that’s just “perceived” temperature.
But it’s still pretty hot, if you are the perceiver….
It is so hot that you feel you are inside a pizza oven when you are out in the sun.
It is so hot that, as you walk, you look right and left for any shady spot, under a colonnade, by the walls of any building, under cafe awnings, anywhere there s a bit of shade, rather than stay in the sunlight.
Anything for a bit of relief from the sun’s pounding bright rays.
Still there are pilgrims, God bless them, many of them seemingly Chinese, gathering by the doors of the Vatican museums, walking up the long walls, braving the heat of the day in order to see the treasures.
But many old people and shut-ins are in trouble. In Milan, there has been a spike in calls from old people as thousands have called for medical assistance.
Animals and crops are also in trouble. Cows are producing 20 percent less milk. And Italy’s olive and grape harvests this fall are expected to be down by a similar amount due to the heat and dryness. The water level in Lake Garda in the north is almost one-third below capacity.
Patrick Browne, a writer for TheLocal.it website, has written an account of how the ancient Romans dealt with the heat.
“The Romans were no strangers to the summer heat,” Browne writes. “In fact, the modern term: ‘the dog days of summer”’ actually comes from the Latin ‘dies canincula,’ the Roman term used to describe the stuffy, hot period of weather between July and mid-August.
“The name comes from the fact that Sirius (the dog star) rises with the sun at this time of year. Romans thought this was the reason for the increase in temperature.
“While they may not have been experts in meteorology, the Romans did know a few practical ways of coping in a heatwave — so what advice can they give us?”
And Patrick Browne gives is 5 suggestions:
1.Go to the Frigidarium
The frigidarium was a large cold pool at the Roman baths where Romans went to cool down… The waters of the frigidarium were kept chilly in the summer months thanks to the addition of snow and ice that had been imported from the Alps.
2. Leave work early
(When in Rome…leave work early.
The Ancient Romans did not do a nine-to-five day. In fact, the average Roman only had a six-hour workday, toiling from sunrise until noon. This stopped them from having to labour during the hottest part of the day and left them with plenty of time to go to and sit in the frigidarium with their friends…
3. Eat snow
(Granita – a delicious way to keep cool.
Before the gelato was invented, Romans hoping for a cool snack had to use what nature offered them. While the rich patricians and Roman nobility would often have huge stores of imported snow at home to keep them cool, citizens had to visit the snow shop. There, mountain ice was kept in underground pits and could sell for more money than wine…
4. Turn on the air conditioning
Air conditioning in ancient Rome? Yep. The Romans were master architects and kept their homes cool during the summer months by employing a series of architectural tricks that provided ancient forms of air conditioning. For example, some rich residents pumped cold water through the walls of their homes to freshen their dwellings during the summer months. Obviously, this was only for a select few and the average Roman homes, or insulae, were probably very stuffy indeed…
5. Leave the city
Many wealthy Romans escaped the heat of the summer months by going to their country houses in the hills outside Rome. With its restricted airflow, and masses of heat-storing marble, Ancient Rome was a furnace in summer and the city’s wealthy patricians were fully aware of what is known today as the “urban heat island effect,” meaning cities often feel hotter than they are.
Urban centres are one to three degrees Celsius hotter during the day than the surrounding countryside, while at night the difference can be as much as 12C.
That’s the difference between a good night’s sleep and a sweaty night spent tossing and turning.
Well I’ve just given you a look at the Lazy, Hazy Days of Ferragosto in Rome. Now you know when to come to Rome for a visit – and when perhaps not to come to the Eternal City!